A Moment for Moderates

If pluralism and radical Islam have a future, stronger voices of tolerance are needed

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Moises Saman / Magnum for TIME

Protesters throw rocks at Egyptian security forces protecting the area near the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Sept. 14.

Watching the protests and associated violence spreading across the Muslim world in recent days, I couldn't help thinking, Where are you now, Wael Ghonim? Ghonim is, of course, the former marketing executive for Google who was catapulted onto the global stage in 2011 as one of the organizers of the opposition to Egypt's dictatorship. He became the hopeful face of the Arab Spring--young, hip, modern and passionate in the cause of freedom.

Where is he, and the thousands like him, now that freedom is under assault in Egypt again? Over the past few weeks, mobs have gathered to demand the death of a filmmaker--not really a filmmaker but a bigot who made a crude Internet video satirizing the Prophet Muhammad. It provided a pretext that radical Islamists in Egypt pounced on to advance their cause. But whatever the trumped-up origins of the protests, the question facing a number of newly minted democracies from Libya to Afghanistan is clear: With freedom challenged by the violence of mobs and the intolerance of masses, will anyone stand up to defend it?

The answer is a cautious and tentative yes. Ghonim, it turns out, has been present. He has been posting comments on his Facebook page denouncing the violence from Cairo, where he runs a nonprofit focused on education. Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, former presidential candidates, have also spoken out, as have prominent clerics in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Tunisia's President has deplored the violence. In Libya, the elected government has been outspoken in condemning the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others and denouncing the extremists responsible.

Over the past decade, I have often despaired about Muslim moderates, describing them as cowardly and defensive--too scared to speak out for their principles for fear that they will be branded bad Muslims. But in several countries where the protests took place, many have criticized the extremists and urged people to voice their opposition to the video in peaceful ways. This is new. Radical Islamists, rampaging mobs, drummed-up outrage, weak leaders and violence--these are familiar aspects of the modern Middle East. What is new is that there are some voices of sanity, and these voices are authentic. The moderates are quieter than the extremists, but that is true almost everywhere.

Think back over the past decade. The story seldom varies: a Westerner, or a handful of them, does something that attacks Islam (mishandles a Koran, attacks the Prophet). The episode is virtually unknown until radical Islamists publicize it to whip up frenzy, hatred and intolerance. Crowds gather outside U.S. embassies, and violence ensues. The regime disperses the crowds with tear gas and bullets. Order is restored, often by brute force, but the rage endures.

This time, however, many of the Arab regimes are no longer dictatorships, and their crowd-control methods are different. In Cairo, Tripoli and Tunis, governments are trying to navigate between listening to their people and guiding them.

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